Bernard Preynat, a former Catholic Priest accused of sexually abusing dozens of boy scouts in the 1970s and 80s is on trial. In court he claimed that he himself was a victim. For Catholic activist and journalist Christine Pedotti, this trial, and that of the Bishop who covered up the abuse, reveals a systemic problem in the French Catholic Church, which has its roots in the masculine domination of the clergy.
Christine Pedotti, the editor of the weekly Catholic newspaper Témoignage Chrétien, was part of a group calling for a commission to look into the wider problem of sex abuse in the Church. The Catholic Church set up an independent commission in February 2019, and has so far collected over 2000 stories.
Q: You are active as a feminist, and have questionned how the Church approaches the issue of women, and sexuality and homosexuality. How is this current crisis of sex abuse a feminist issue?
Christine Pedotti: I see the issue of paedophilia as a symptom of an inward-focused, masculine clerical culture, in which sexuality is always seen as a sin.
What’s terrible is that deep down, some clergy consider that sexual acts with children are less serious than sexual acts with women. This shows there is a very negative view of women.
The Catholic Church doesn’t know how to talk about sexuality, because it’s incapable of seeing women as desirable. That’s where this meets feminism.
Q: How has France approached the issue of sex abuse by priests differently from elsewhere?
CP: France is France, so we think we’re exceptional. This was happening everywhere else: in Canada, in the US, in Australia, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Poland, Chile. France thought the problem would stop at our borders.
The French church had to realize it had a problem, and it wasn’t an exception. That’s a difficult realization. It’s difficult to come to terms that this happened in France just like everywhere else. That four Bishops of Lyon, one after the other, closed their eyes on this priest [Preynat], who everyone knew was a criminal.
CP: Many people ask why not become Protestant? First, I don’t think things are any better in that Church. And second, it would be like changing countries or nationalities. That’s not easy to do.
I grew up Catholic, and am imbibed by Catholic history and culture. It interests me a lot. So I stay with it, and try to change it. I created an association whose mission is: “neither leave, nor stay quiet”. And I talk, and I bother the Bishops.
A French newspaper called me a “pain in the ass for church people”. I think it’s rather a compliment!
Q: Preynat is on trial, Barbarin was convicted last year. There is a growing awareness of this problem in the French Catholic Church. Are things changing as a result?
CP: I am hopeful, but Pope Francis has pointed out the main issue, which I agree with (I love saying that the Pope and I agree!). The issue is clericalism and the isolation of the priest, as sacred, and separate. How do we fight against this feeling of exceptionalism that priests have?
This is not just a French issue, it’s an issue for the Catholic Church as a whole. Who are these men – because they are exclusively men, and celibate – who have a special rapport with the divine? It’s very strange, and rather archaic. It puts the Catholic Church in a rather uncomfortable position.
Q: Your work has often been on the margins of the mainstream approach to Catholicism. You have focused on taboos subjects. How have these sex scandals, and the reactions to them, changed the way people see your work?
CP: Today I’m invited to conferences more than before. People are starting to see that that what I’ve been saying for a long time is true. It’s almost an oxymoron to say you’re Catholic and feminist. It seems impossible. Today, some people are saying: Maybe she’s right – not just me, but a certain number of Catholics who take very disruptive positions.
Today I can say that there are points on which I agree with the Pope! Not on the issue of women, but on some issues we have a common analysis – so I’m less marginalised.
I think many people agree with me that there was a real error in what Pope John-Paul II did, to focus the church on the Priest, male, celibate, as sacred. And placing women as mothers, wives, reserved and quiet like the Virgin Mary.
Q: You speak about the lack of credibility in the French church. Will these alternative ways of thinking attract people back to Catholicism in France?
CP: That’s complicated to say. Today the French Catholic Church is fragile. It receives no public funds, and donations have gone down. It’s a complicated crisis, because it comes from inside.
So to know what will happen, is a real question. I still believe in the religion, and there are resources in faith. But we are moving towards a smaller Church. The Church and power went hand-in-hand over the centuries. This was probably an error. Now we have to unlearn what we’ve done since Constantine, which was 16 centuries ago. So there’s a ways to go.
Catholicism counts a lot on its pope. Pope Francis is not young. It will be interesting to see how those in power, across the world, will choose who will replace him. Will they decide on conservatism, to avoid change? Or will they say that in order to announce the gospel in the 21st, we need to change something?
A string of sex abuse scandals have rocked Christian communities recently: In the Roman Catholic Church, revelations related to sex abuse by priests continue to unfold across the globe. Within the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., media reports have brought into public view allegations of sexual abuse dating back decades.
Such scandals have led to widespread doubts about church officials and institutions. And this is not for the first time. As a scholar of early Christianity, I know that in the fourth century, Christian churches in North Africa faced a similar crisis of trust in their leaders.
Known as the Donatist controversy, it caused a schism that lasted for centuries and offers a parallel for thinking about the impact of these crises on contemporary Christian communities today.
Traitors during Christian persecution
Christians in the Roman Empire occasionally experienced periods of imperial persecution. These periods were often memorialized in Christian tradition through stories of famous martyrdoms. The stories often portrayed Christians as courageous and virtuous in the face of imperial violence.
The most infamous period of persecution occurred in the early fourth century A.D. Spearheaded by the emperor Diocletian, it was also the final imperially sponsored persecution of Christian communities.
While persecutions were sporadic, local and rare, they often put difficult choices before Christian clergy and laity.
Some renounced Christianity. Others handed over sacred books or church property and outed fellow Christians to the authorities. Christians called the latter “traditores,” a Latin term meaning “those who handed over,” the root of the word “traitor.”
Whether and how to welcome such traditores back into Christian communities after the persecutions was a topic of intense debate among Christians.
Traditores were considered to have betrayed their communities to save themselves. This sense of betrayal was particularly felt with respect to clergy members who had become traditores.
The issue came to a head in A.D. 311 in North Africa when Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage, became embroiled in controversy after it was alleged that one or more of the bishops who presided at his consecration had been traditores.
In the eyes of many Christians in North Africa, Caecilian’s virtues did not matter. The presence of a traditor among those who ordained him invalidated his ordination.
The Donatist schism
Caecilian was supported politically and financially by the imperial administration. Caecilian’s opponents pressed their case in regional councils and before local magistrates.
They even appealed to the Emperor Constantine, who wrote in a letter to the Vicar of Africa in A.D. 314 that he had grown tired of receiving requests from Caecilian’s opponents.
They brought charges, which ultimately proved to be false, against Felix of Aptunga, one of the bishops that had ordained Caecilian. Charges against other bishops soon followed.
In A.D. 313, Donatus was consecrated bishop of Carthage and became the leading voice of Caecilian’s opponents. These “Donatists,” as they came to be called, created their own massive network of churches that stood in opposition to those allied with Caecilian and the Roman state.
Constantine soon grew fed up with the Donatists and the schism that they had created in the church. From A.D. 316-321, Constantine used the force of the state to coerce the Donatists back into the fold.
Constantine’s attempts to intervene led to violence that resulted in the deaths of Donatist Christians. His intervention did little to end the schism. Constantine soon gave up state-sponsored persecution of the Donatists.
In A.D. 346, the Emperor Constans, who succeeded Constantine, tried again to end the schism. His agents used imperial funds to woo clergy back, but also used violence. Macarius, one of Constans’s agents, led a campaign of suppression, in which Christians killed other fellow Christians.
Macarius became infamous among Donatist communities. The Donatists considered those who died to be martyrs. These martyrs and their memory were celebrated by Donatist communities.
Donatus was said to have questioned the very role of the emperor in the controversy, saying, “What has the emperor to do with the church?”
By the fifth century, Donatist churches were thriving and sparring with Catholics. And Donatist churches remained active in North Africa until the Islamic conquests of the seventh century.
The Donatists believed the sins of traditores risked the salvation of individual members and the health of the community.
“How,” they asked, “could sacraments administered by an offending priest be recognized by a holy God?” And if those sacraments were not effective, the salvation of the individual and the community were at risk. For the Donatists, only sacraments performed by uncompromised clergy were effective.
In their attempts to respond to Donatist critique, the Catholic Church settled on a strategy developed by Augustine, an influential fifth-century Catholic bishop in North Africa.
Augustine, who describes the sparring between Donatists and Catholics in his writings, argued that the sacraments were effective regardless of the morality of the clergy involved – a church doctrine known as “ex opere operato.” He said that as the sacraments were the work of Christ, they did not depend on the moral character of the officiating priest.
What can be learned today
Today, in the face of the sex abuse crisis, contemporary Christian communities find themselves asking questions about institutions that condoned, hid and promoted abusive clergy.
This might be a moment to revisit the Donatist critique. They created their own churches because they feared not only for the efficacy of the sacraments but also for the character of a church that made it too easy for traditores to continue to remain leaders.
Widespread sexual abuse by Christian clergy represents a very different crisis from that faced by the betrayal of the traditores.
However, I believe the Donatists offer a lesson for Christian communities about the risks to the integrity and cohesion of institutions when they shield the abuser rather than protect the victims.
The Vatican’s Sexual Abuse Summit ‘Failed Miserably’
The recently concluded Vatican summit on sexual abuse in the church was framed in the same old top-down way that’s at the heart of the problem. Lay people, both women and men, experts in the law, psychology, and theology were excluded. What could be more wrong with this picture?
Roma locuta; causa finita est, attributed to Augustine, means: “Rome has spoken, the matter is closed.” So it is. Sordid details emerging of Australian Cardinal George Pell’s conviction on “multiple historical child sex offenses” are no great shock. They only confirm the general consensus that the recent Roman summit was a dismal failure of nerve and justice at a time when only nerve and justice will suffice.
Survivors of sexual abuse, women religious, LBGTIQ advocates, and some journalists made impressive showings during the recent “Protection of Minors in the Church” meetings in Rome. Pope Francis, cardinals and bishops, not so much. The Vatican had lowered expectations going into the meeting once it became clear that Catholic people around the world demand action not just words. From all that I saw and read—talks and press conferences were live streamed; press coverage was extensive—the clerics came in well below even their own low bar.
As I surmised beforehand, the meeting was “held at the wrong time with the wrong people about the wrong issues.”
Just imagine if the meeting had been held in September 2018, right after the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report was issued with its shockingly large number of victims and offenders. That would have also been right after reports came out that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had abused countless seminarians and priests. The Vatican crowd could have saved themselves a lot of grief.
Think of what would not have been on the table. Many terrible revelations have emerged since September:
Lists of hundreds of credibly accused priests from dozens of dioceses and provinces of men’s religious orders are now public.
A report on the many children who have been fathered by the fathers, as it were, is under review.
The sordid details of the McCarrick saga are clear, including his abuse of someone in the confessional, which was a major reason for his subsequent defrocking.
Reports of clerics sexually abusing nuns in India and elsewhere are now common knowledge.
A page-turner of a study of the incidence of allegedly gay, sexually active, but most of all duplicitous priests in high positions in the Vatican entitled In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy opens another vista.
Report of the Apostolic Nuncio to France, Archbishop Luigi Ventura, under investigation for molesting a government staffer just surfaced.
In fact, all of that data was part of the backdrop of the meeting, but no one peeped about most of it. Maybe next time the clerics will learn to act faster for their own good.
Pope Francis gathered 190 heads of bishops’ conferences as well as ten women religious who lead their orders and their equivalent in men’s congregations for the summit. But the real action was in the streets and surrounding buildings, where scores of sex abuse survivors and their supporters protested, told their stories, and gave interviews.
The more the clerics droned on in endless platitudes and careful parsing in lieu of implementing policy, the more the survivors garnered credibility and sympathy. A skilled facilitator would have invited the survivors into the hall, paired them each with a bishop, and invited them together to lay out constructive next steps for the church. Alas, no such forward-looking person was in a position to do so, least of all the much-touted and deeply disappointing pontiff.
Instead, the official meeting featured videos of survivors at yet one more remove from the bishops, many of whom had never listened to survivors in their own dioceses. It’s no wonder. These stories are hard to hear. One woman in a video told of being forced as an underage teen into sex with a priest; he paid for her three abortions. Some bishops expressed genuine shock, leading observers to wonder where they have been for the last two decades.
Still others continued to externalize the problem as a Western issue, suggesting, for example, that problems like child soldiers demand equal time. No doubt, good brothers, but the stated focus of the meeting was on the protection of minors, with the implied tagline “from priest/bishop abusers.” There are many actionable forms of abuse of children, but this time the focus was on that perpetrated by and covered up by clerics. The Vatican was not trying to solve the world’s problems, but to look at its own.
By many measures it failed miserably. The gathering was too homogenous to be useful. It was framed in the same old top-down way that’s at the heart of the problem. Lay people, both women and men, experts in the law, psychology, theology, and the like were excluded. Clerics met in small groups to talk with other clerics. What could be more wrong with this picture?
Pope Francis in his final statement captured the egregious miss that was this meeting. He started off generally: “Our work has made us realize once again that the gravity of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors is, and historically has been, a widespread phenomenon in all cultures and societies.” Then he went on to contextualize clerical abuse by talking about the high incidence of abuse at home. He’s right, of course, but the difference is that families don’t have as their reason for being the well-being of the world’s people. That is the Church’s (now empty) claim.
He painted a broader picture of pornography, sex trafficking, and other precipitating forces that make up “the mystery of evil, which strikes most violently against the most vulnerable.” There is no mystery here. His priests and bishops abused minors and some covered it up. What’s so mysterious about that? A large number of minors have been sexually abused by a large number of clerics. Period. Full stop. It’s simply the beginning of a hideous story that includes the abuse of seminarians, nuns and other women, children of priests, and more, all of whom merit summits of their own.
Francis’ discussion of power fell flat. He claimed that the sexual abuse of minors is an abuse of power. He completely passed over the structures of vastly unequal power between clergy and laity that are the bedrock of this power differential, a causative factor in church-related abuse. Without changing those structures the chances of eradicating sexual abuse of minors by clergy are nil.
Francis concluded with nothing new, concrete, or effective, using vacuous terms like “impeccable seriousness” and “genuine purification,” highly spiritualized notions that might ground new policies. I do not think so. And I know that few are going to wait around to find out.
Survivors and their supporters left empty handed while bishops toddled off to their dioceses without clear direction. On the one hand, one can applaud Francis for not imposing new laws by fiat, for inviting people to a “personal and communal conversion.” But “zero tolerance” is hardly a new idea or something around which consensus has to be built. It does not mean someone must leave the church as the McCarrick case proved, only that the person be dealt with by civil authorities and leave ministry where the possibility of abusingpower remains. Is that too much to ask in the face of mounting evidence of criminal behavior and cover-ups?
On the other hand, Francis’ approach might mean that church teachings and polity will be handled locally as abuse cases are. Catholics can rejoice that such moral sticky wickets as abortion and homosexuality, and such disputed matters of ecclesiology as the ordination of women and married men to the diaconate and presbyterate, will soon be announced as local options as well. I doubt sincerely that this is in the cards, but it follows logically. Logic was at a premium in Rome during the summit.
This dilemma, this selective use of papal power, points to the fundamental problem at hand. It’s the need for new ecclesial structures rooted in a realistic theology that would mitigate power inequities and begin to reshape the global Catholic Church into safer, more participatory communities with the full participation of women and lay men in every facet of church life.
To that end, the undisputed highlights of the meeting were the three presentations by women. Some of the clerics expressed surprise that Canon Lawyer Linda Ghisoni, Nigerian Sister of the Holy Child Jesus, Veronica Openibo, and longtime Mexican journalist, Valentina Alazraki, had such powerful and well-grounded analyses, and that they minced no words in their articulation. Apparently the men have been asleep for the last four decades when Catholic women have developed such competencies with no help from the institutional church.
Dr. Ghisoni challenged the overuse of official forms of secrecy in the Vatican, the so-called “pontifical secrets,” claiming that much of what had been hidden for the sake of protecting good names and the institution was relevant for public discussion. She knows that Canon Law can and must change. Pope Francis’ bizarre comment about feminism being “machismo in a skirt” following her talk suggests that she might have struck a little close to home.
Sister Openibo asked the clerics why they had persisted in silence for so long: “Why have other issues around sexuality not been addressed sufficiently, e.g. misuse of power, money, clericalism, gender discrimination, the role of women and the laity in general? Is it that the hierarchical structures and long protocols that negatively affected swift actions focused more on media reactions?” She concluded with the need to “be proactive not reactive in combating the challenges facing the world of the young and the vulnerable, and look fearlessly into other issues of abuse in the church and society,” marching orders for those who want to solve this problem.
Valentina Alazraki, a veteran Vatican journalist who has worked during five pontificates over four decades taking 150 papal trips, was equally frank. She left these words ringing in the ears of the assembled: “… we journalists are neither those who abuse nor those who cover up. Our mission is to assert and defend a right, which is a right to information based on truth in order to obtain justice. We journalists know that abuse is not limited to the Catholic Church, but you must understand that we have to be more rigorous with you than with others, by virtue of your moral role.”
She recommended that the clerics turn over a new leaf with the new onslaught of information about the abuse of women in the church. This time, she counseled the institution to “play offense and not defense, as has happened in the case of the abuse of minors. It could be a great opportunity for the Church to take the initiative and be on the forefront of denouncing these abuses, which are not only sexual but also abuses of power.” Nothing that emerged from Pope Francis’ finale, nor from the final press conference that included Vatican spokespeople, indicated that this would happen. Nonetheless, the women speakers pointed the way forward.
No one expected a miracle or a magic solution to the deeply entrenched problem of sexual abuse of minors at this meeting. Given that the abuse of women, including nuns, has not been addressed at all, and that the cases and lists of perpetrators continue to roll out (along withthe conviction of George Pell, Pope Francis’ handpicked leader of the Vatican’s finances), there’s little reason to expect anything at all from Rome.
There’s solace in the strength of survivors, the savvy of these women speakers, and the solidarity of people around the world. When asked for bread, the Roman Catholic Church can no longer get away with giving a stone (Matthew 7:9). Roma finita est.